With our meeting finished, I took the opportunity to visit the beach near La Jolla Shores. Late in the afternoon on a beautiful spring day, I thought perhaps with luck I’d see the Green Flash, described in Wikipedia, as the optical phenomena that can occur after sunset for no more than a second or two. Emerging from the car, I was greeted by another kind of green flash. The angle of the sun this late in the afternoon brought dramatic lighting to the park by the beach. Rows of palms stretching towards the blue sky, cast dramatic deep shadows on the verdant green grass flashing before me. As I stood there, inhaling the sweet smell of the sea air touching the desert landscape, my eyes immediately focused on the dramatic colors and the strong verticals and horizontals. It was a beautiful moment – a quintessential moment when one feels blessed to be alive. Perhaps this kind of scene – my green flash – is what caught Richard Diebenkorn’s imagination inspiring him to create the paintings now known as the Ocean Park Series. Robert Henri’s words from The Art Spirit passed through my mind too: “the sketch hunter moves through life as he finds it, not passing negligently the things he loves, but stopping to know them, and to note them down in the shorthand of his sketchbook.” Would I be up to the task of sketching this scene? I decided it was worth the risk and that I would hold on to the basic elements that first intrigued me. Painting is like life, it is all to easy too get lost in the details. Try to find what is important – your magnetic north – and hold your course. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Our life is frittered away by detail…..simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.”
This spring and summer we’ve made three trips to Southern California. Crossing “the Grapevine” through the Tehachapi Mountains I am filled with glorious anticipation of the descent into the Los Angeles Basin. Why such excitement? Perhaps it’s my fascination with the contradictory juxtapositions of the place and it’s history, and the palpable tensions. But then again maybe some of the appeal comes from aesthetics; something as simple as the light. Carey McWilliams, in Southern California: An Island of the Land, wrote “a desert light brings out the sharpness of points angles and forms…..but let the light turn soft with ocean mist, and miraculous changes occur…..but this is not desert light nor is it tropical for it has neutral tones. It is Southern California light and it has no counterpoint in the world.” There is a quality of light in Los Angeles and Southern California that is born from the relationship of desert, sea and the impact of humans (and the pollution we make) on the environment.
Years ago I read a February/March 1988 New Yorker article “L.A. Glows: Why Southern California doesn’t look like any place else.” Lawren Weschler tried to capture this sense of light with anecdotes from scientists, writers, and architects. Caltech Professor Glen Cass gazing north towards the San Gabriel Mountains identified a bright, white atmospheric haze. Cass said “on some days there can be billions of particles in the line of site between me and the mountain – each of them with the mirrorlike potential to bounce white sunlight directly back into my eye.” The poet Paul Vangelisti said “for one thing, I think the light of L.A. is the whitest light I’ve every seen,” and the Pritzker Prize winning architect Coy Howard said …..it’s not exactly a dramatic light…..if anything its meditative…..when you get the kind of veiled light we get here more regularly you become aware of a sort of multiplicity – not illumination so much as luminosity. Southern California glows…..and the opacity melts away into translucency, and even transparency.”
On these southern voyages, we’ve made it a point to have encounters with the work of artists and architects working in and inspired by the Los Angeles basin, such as Richard Diebenkorn, who I blogged about in April. Most recently we’ve seen the pale, soft and transparent light of Southern California play against buildings designed by Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. Friends, colleagues and rivals they both came to Los Angeles after WW I from Vienna, Austria where they had individually studied with Adolf Loos and Josef Hoffman. Making their ways separately to California, Schindler worked for Frank Lloyd Wright and Neutra for Eric Mendelsohn in Berlin. Collectively, they practiced the concepts of modernism or the International Style in Southern California when these were still revolutionary ideas. Schindler and Neutra both designed homes for Philip and Leah Lovell; Schindler designed the Lovell Beach House in Newport, California and Neutra designed the Lovell Health House in the Hollywood/Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Both buildings are inspiring examples of innovation in materials (concrete and steel) and the architect’s use of space, form and the importance of light to the structure creating a sense of transparency between the interior and the exterior so characteristic of what would become the post-WWII California lifestyle. Each building is a monumental work of art, but miraculously each structure lay easily and understatedly upon the landscape. In the case of Schindler, the eye of the viewer is lifted skyward into the light by concrete frames lifting the house above streetlevel; whereas with Neutra, the house is nestled within the canyon contours firmly anchored but appearing to gently to float cloudlike hugging the landscape. Each home – considered historic structures in the story of California’s architectural past – remains a meditation of light upon the land.
My neighbor’s house was an Oakland community landmark on Google Earth with its magenta walls and chartreuse trim. It was so pink I always hummed something by The Band, which makes me think about the passing of the great Levon Helm, but that’s another story. All colors fade in the sunshine, even the bright ones, and so the day came when a new coat of paint was required. While most mortals choose the security of pale pastels for their homes, my wonderful neighbors boldly embrace intense, vibrant, juicy color. The two-story domicile now dresses in an azure gown with lime accessories. The transition was a delight. For several days the house was a canvas where a team of painters painted layer upon layer diligently bringing blue to the forefront and quietly pushing the reddish-pink to the background. Daily life was being re-framed through the window. Within borderlines created by ledges and transoms, the colors and shapes were pushing and pulling within a geometric grid recalling one of my favorite painters Richard Diebenkorn. Just a few weeks ago, we saw the Diebenkorn Ocean Park Series exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art. Initially inspired by the “view” from his studio window, Diebenkorn captured the geography, topography and hazy light inspired by the marine/desert environment of Los Angeles. My love affair with Diebenkorn began over thirty years ago in a course taught by the painter Cornelia Schulz. Captivated and spiritually centered by Diebenkorn’s strong horizontal and vertical bands of color I was inspired to see the world through his framework. Diebenkorn’s painting made me feel it was possible to realize something as close to oneness as can be known. Critiquing my work, Schulz noted my clear interest in the Ocean Park Series and suggested that I seek out Diebenkorn’s inspiration: the abstractions created by Matisse of the “view” from his window during his stay in Morocco and Tangiers. And I did. Last summer San Francisco MOMA hosted the exhibit The Steins Collect which delved deeply into the art collections formed by Gertrude, Michael, Sarah and Leo Stein. Michael and Sarah Stein became great friends with Henri Matisse purchasing many of his paintings. Leaving Paris before the Nazi invasion of Europe, Michael and Sarah Stein settled in Palo Alto, California. After World War II, Richard Diebenkorn, an Art Student at Stanford University, regularly attended the salon’s held by Sarah Stein, where he was first exposed to Matisse’s paintings. In 1964 and 1966 Diebenkorn had the opportunity to see many of the paintings Matisse created in Morocco and Tangiers at the Hermitage in Leningrad and the UCLA Art Gallery Matisse retrospective. In 1967, Diebenkorn moved to Los Angeles and the Ocean Park Series was born.